A number of years ago, there was a book which was made into a television miniseries by the name of Lonesome Dove. It was a story about two men from Texas, retired Texas rangers who gathered a herd of cattle and headed north to Montana. Along the way, one of them, Gus, died and on his death bed he made the other one, Call, take an oath that he would return his body to San Antonio and bury his bones by a spring there, a place where he had fond memories.
As soon as winter was over, Call took the coffin with Gus’ body in it and headed south to Texas. Folks that heard about what he was doing laughed at the old ranger for being so ignorant. Why not just bury him somewhere along the way? He’ll never know the difference.
But the old ranger wouldn’t give up his quest. He had made a promise to his friend and he was going to keep that promise. And by the end of the book, Gus is buried by that spring in San Antonio. It’s a beautiful story about two men who had been together for so long and who thought so much of each other that one of them would do so much for his friend.
But that story is very similar to another story that appears in the Bible. It’s also the story of the remains of a body being carried a long distance to be buried. And the reason for that trip also involved a promise that was made.
We’ll look at that story in just a little bit, but first, I want us to get an overview of the entire book of Joshua. Watch this video and then we’ll talk about those bones of a dead man that were carried a long distance and what that tells us about the faithfulness of God.
This morning, I want to talk with you about a sack of old bones. These bones were passed down from generation to generation until they came into the possession of Joshua, the leader of the Israelites. The sack contained the bones of Joseph. So why is Joshua carrying around a sack of old bones that belonged to someone who lived over 500 years before he did?
I want you to imagine this. When Sueanne and I moved into our home on Daughtridge Dr., some of you men were there to help us move stuff in. Suppose we were unloading boxes from the truck, and I said to one of you, “Be especially careful of that box right there. It’s got the bones of one of my relatives in it, great-uncle Clem. He died in 1485, and every time we move, we carry that box of bones with us.” I suspect that you might consider that to be just a little bit odd. But I want you to see the whole story of what’s going on here in Joshua.
Let’s start by going back to the book of Genesis. As Joseph neared the end of his life, he said to his brothers, “I am about to die, but God will visit you and bring you up out of this land to the land that he swore to Abraham, to Isaac, and to Jacob.” (Genesis 50:24). Then Joseph made his brothers promise that they would carry his remains to Canaan and bury him there.
Consider the fact that the Egyptians of that day were known for their mummification process and for their monuments to the dead. Think of the pyramids, which were built to honor their great leaders. Joseph was second in command in the entire land of Egypt, so he probably could have had an elaborate pyramid built as a memorial. If you wanted to be remembered after your death, Egypt was the place to die. But Joseph said to his family, “Don’t bury me here. Take my bones back to Canaan.”
You may have heard of somebody who wanted to be buried “back home”. In fact, some of you may have left instructions with your families, “If I die in this area, I want my body to be carried back to West Virginia or Alabama or California to be buried.” But what Joseph is saying here is more than that. It’s not just the nostalgia. It’s not just going back to a place of fond memories.
When Joseph said, “Take my bones back with you”, he was making a statement of faith. Because, at that time, the people of Israel were in the land of Egypt. And they were going to be there for many, many years. But this was Joseph’s way of saying, “God gave us a promise. He gave it to my great-grandfather Abraham and he gave it to my grandfather Isaac, and he gave it to my father Jacob, and he gave that promise to me. And, someday, I believe that God is going to keep that promise and lead our family back to the land of Canaan.”
And so, Joseph preferred to be buried in a remote cave in Canaan instead of being remembered by means of an Egyptian monument. He was expressing his faith in the promises of God.
In Genesis 15, “The Lord made a covenant with Abram, saying: ‘To your descendants I have given this land, from the river of Egypt to the great river, the River Euphrates.” (Genesis 15:18).
In Genesis 26, that promise was passed down to Abraham’s son, Isaac. God said to Isaac, “Sojourn in this land, and I will be with you and bless you; for to you and your descendants I give all these lands, and I will perform the oath which I swore to Abraham your father.” (Genesis 26:4).
In chapter 28, we come to Isaac’s son, Jacob. God said to him, “I am the Lord God of Abraham your father and the God of Isaac; the land on which you lie I will give to you and your descendants.” (Genesis 28:13).
Over and over, God said to Abraham, Isaac and Jacob, “Someday, this land will be yours.” But that was a long time before the days of Joseph. Many years have passed and now all of the Jacob’s family are down in Egypt. Joseph is nearing the end of his life. He says, “When I die, you take my bones, put them in a sack and carry them back with you and bury them in the land of Canaan when you get there. Not if you get there, but when you get there.” That was a great statement of faith. It was Joseph’s way of saying, “I believe that the God who made a promise to our family is going to keep that promise.”
So, now let’s move ahead to Exodus 13. Moses comes on the scene. Centuries after Joseph lived and died, Moses is leading the Israelites out of Egypt. And of all the things they needed to take with them, Moses made sure that somebody grabbed that sack of bones. “Moses took the bones of Joseph with him, for Joseph had made the sons of Israel solemnly swear, saying, ‘God will surely visit you, and you shall carry up my bones with you from here.”’” (Exodus 13:19).
So, now we’ve got Joseph’s bones out of Egypt. The Israelites carry them across the Red Sea. But that wasn’t God’s promise. The promise wasn’t just that the Israelites would get out of Egypt. The promise was that they would get back into the land of Canaan, the Promised Land.
So, for 40 years in the wilderness, Moses carried around this sack of bones. Every time the Israelites picked up camp and moved, somebody had to grab those bones. And, after 40 years, they finally come to the edge of Canaan, ready to go in. But then Moses dies.
So, there’s some question about the promise of God at this point. What’s going to happen to Joseph’s bones? God had promised the people of Israel, “You can have this land.” But there’s a river ahead. And beyond that river are many enemies with strong armies ready to crush them. And Moses, their leader, is gone. So, what are the odds this bag of bones is actually going to make it over there?
I think that period of time for the Israelites is like so many times in our own lives. Times when we know that God has made promises to us, but things just don’t seem to be working out the way we think they ought to. Times when we start questioning whether or not God will really keep his promises.
Promises like, “Whatever you ask in faith, you will receive.” And, “The effective fervent prayer of a righteous man avails much.” And we believe that. That’s why we pray. But there are times when we wonder if God is paying any attention to us.
Or there are times when we search for wisdom, times we want to know what the will of God is, and so we go to God in prayer and we ask for wisdom. God promised he would give us wisdom, but there are times when we don’t seem to get any.
And that’s not to say that it puts us in a state of unbelief. It’s just difficult. Like it must have been for the Israelites, wondering if God was ever going to keep his promises to them,
All of this brings us now to Joshua chapter 1. When the book of Joshua opens, God doesn’t say, “Moses is dead, you need to cry a while.” And he doesn’t say, “Moses is dead, you need to wait a while.” God says, “Moses is dead, now get up and go take that land.” Because one of the themes in Joshua is this: “Moses is dead, but God isn’t.” And that’s something we all need to remember.
So, in verse 1, “After the death of Moses the servant of the Lord, the Lord said to Joshua the son of Nun, Moses’ assistant, ‘Moses my servant is dead. Now therefore arise, go over this Jordan, you and all this people, into the land that I am giving to them, to the people of Israel…No man shall be able to stand before you all the days of your life. Just as I was with Moses, so I will be with you. I will not leave you or forsake you. (Joshua 1:1-5).
Do you get the idea that God is trying to say something here about his faithfulness? The Hebrew writer, looking back to this event, wrote, “For he himself has said, ‘I will never leave you nor forsake you.'” (Hebrews 13:5). Our God is faithful, and God will always keep his promises.
So, now we turn to the end of Joshua, chapter 24. And it’s another death. This time it’s Joshua who dies, and the Israelites bury him. And then, in verse 32, notice this: “As for the bones of Joseph, which the people of Israel brought up from Egypt [that sack of bones they’ve been carrying around for generations], they buried them at Shechem, in the piece of land that Jacob bought…” (Joshua 24:32).
After all this time, over 500 years, we’re still keeping up with that sack of bones. At the end of Genesis, Joseph says, “Take my bones with you.” In Exodus 13, Moses says, “Somebody grab those bones before we leave.” And here at the end of Joshua, whoever wrote the book said, “By the way, you need to know, those bones made it.”
This is not just an obituary column attached to the end of the book of Joshua. It’s not just there to let you know in case you’re curious. It’s there for a very important reason. It’s there because Joseph’s bones preached the faithfulness of God. His tombstone was a monument to the faithfulness of Jehovah God who kept his promise to Abraham, Isaac and Jacob, a promise that Joseph believed with all his heart.
Do you see what the writer of Joshua is saying to us today? This is a history book, but it’s not just giving us a bunch of facts. It’s telling us that we are following a God that we can count on. God said that he would give the Israelites the land of Canaan and he did. God kept that promise just as surely as he has kept every promise he ever made. So, if there are any doubts in your own heart, be assured that our God is faithful, and he will do exactly what he has promised that he will do.
Over and over, the Bible stresses that one of the primary attributes of God is his faithfulness. God is dependable. You can always count on him. When God tells you he’ll do something, you can believe that he will do it. When he makes a promise, you know he’s going to keep it. Because God is faithful.
And what that means for us is that we have someone in our life that we can trust. You may not be able to trust the people you work with. You may not be able to trust the people in government. You may not even be able to trust your family or your friends. But there is no question that you can trust God because God has proven himself to be faithful. He has established a pattern of centuries of keeping his promises.
Listen to some of these promises that we can be assured of:
“No temptation has overtaken you that is not common to man. God is faithful, and he will not let you be tempted beyond your ability, but with the temptation he will also provide the way of escape, that you may be able to endure it.” (I Corinthians 10:13). How do we know that? Because our God is faithful. We can trust him.
“Now may the God of peace himself sanctify you completely, and may your whole spirit and soul and body be kept blameless at the coming of our Lord Jesus Christ. He who calls you is faithful; he will surely do it.” (I Thessalonians 5:23-24). How do we know that’s true? Because our God is faithful. We can trust him.
“But the Lord is faithful. He will establish you and guard you against the evil one.” (2 Thessalonians 3:3). How do we know that? Because our God is faithful. We can trust him.
“If we confess our sins, he is faithful and just to forgive us our sins and to cleanse us from all unrighteousness.” (I John 1:9). How do we know that God will do that? Because our God is faithful. We can trust him.
And in Hebrews 10:23, “Let us hold fast the confession of our hope without wavering, for he who promised is faithful.” This verse introduces a very important concept. The Hebrew writer says because God is faithful, we in turn can be faithful to him. God has always kept his promises to us, so we can trust him. And because we trust him, we obey him. And we gain the strength to remain faithful to him, knowing that he will keep his promises to us, including the promise of eternal life for those who follow him.
General Douglas MacArthur was held in high regard by the people of the Philippines. In 1942, when Japanese forces moved in and General MacArthur was forced to retreat, he made a famous promise to those in the Philippines. He simply said, “I shall return.”
Two years later, in 1944, General MacArthur kept his promise and he came back to liberate the Philippines from the Japanese. The Congress of the Philippines honored MacArthur by promising to call out his name from that day forward at every roll call of the Philippine army. When the general’s name was called, a senior officer would respond, “Present in spirit.”
General MacArthur was deeply touched by this gesture. He visited the Philippines one last time at the age of 81, and true to their word, the citizens called out his name during role call as they had been doing for the last 36 years. The Philippine people were as faithful to General MacArthur as he was to them, and he was moved to tears.
Sometimes we wonder if God has forgotten us. Times come in our lives when we feel alone and wonder if we’ve been abandoned. But we have God’s promise that he will never leave or forsake us. And, in fact, he too has made the promise, “I will return.”
Those of us who are Christians are a people of faith. But sometimes we forget that God always keeps his promises. Always. There may be some of you this morning who have been struggling with that in your own lives recently. If that’s the case, I hope that you’ll remember the story of the sack of bones because it teaches a powerful lesson that still holds true in our own lives.
The message of the book of Joshua is that our God is a faithful God. Whatever darkness may have swept into your life, Joshua is saying, “If you take a look at history, you can see that God is always faithful — in his own time and in his own way.”
It is on the basis of God’s faithfulness that Joshua is able to make that well-known statement at the end of his life. “And if it is evil in your eyes to serve the Lord, choose this day whom you will serve, whether the gods your fathers served in the region beyond the River, or the gods of the Amorites in whose land you dwell. But as for me and my house, we will serve the Lord.” (Joshua 24:15).
Because God has been faithful to us, we need to be faithful to him. Folks, I’m here to tell you this morning that there is someone you can trust. Our God is a faithful God. Your friends may leave you. Your family members may betray you. But our God can always be trusted. This morning, do you trust him enough to give your life over to him?